March 2020 edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Don’t get the mag? Head to USLacrosse.org to subscribe.

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"> Fifth Year Fantasy: Pat Spencer, the Multi-Sport Sensation | USA Lacrosse Magazine

PHOTO COURTESY OF NORTHWESTERN ATHLETICS

Fifth Year Fantasy: Pat Spencer, the Multi-Sport Sensation


This article appears in the March 2020 edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Don’t get the mag? Head to USLacrosse.org to subscribe.

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hen Brian James recruited Pat Spencer to play basketball at Northwestern, he did not have much to go on, aside from other coaches’ recommendations and Spencer’s four-year-old highlights from high school.

James has an eye for talent, however, having spent 18 years as a high school coach in Illinois and 14 years as an assistant in the NBA before joining Chris Collins’ staff in 2013.

He also had nothing to lose.

If the gamble paid off, Spencer, the Loyola lacrosse sensation who set the NCAA career assists record and won the Tewaaraton Award just days before flying to Evanston for a private workout, would become a contributor for a rebuilding Big Ten basketball team. If it didn’t, he’d make a good practice player.

A low-risk, high-reward move, James called it.

Northwestern got its first taste of the payout in an empty Welsh-Ryan Arena just two weeks into summer practices. Spencer knifed through defenders with the ball in his hands, creating shooting lanes for himself and open opportunities for teammates. He commanded the fast break with poise and confidence. He was explosive. He played loose and free.

“Coach,” the players told James, Collins and the rest of Northwestern’s staff after one pickup game. “This kid can play.”

The Wildcats had more than just a feel-good story or serviceable practice player on their hands. They had a legitimate multi-sport star. “They were worried that this was going to be a circus act,” James said. “That thought was erased after the first couple of weeks.”


"Right now, I'm a basketball player. That doesn't mean I’ve shut the door on lacrosse."


Spencer spent his senior season at Loyola serving up “SportsCenter” highlights and leaving lacrosse fans in suspense. His heroic six-goal, five-assist performance in an NCAA quarterfinal loss to Penn State all but guaranteed he would win the Tewaaraton Award.

The No. 1 overall pick in the Premier Lacrosse League draft, Spencer ended his acceptance speech with a cliffhanger.

“I just want to say thank you to the game of lacrosse,” he said during a ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. “This isn’t the end.”

Two weeks later, following Loyola’s team trip to Portugal, Spencer made his intentions known. He was taking his talents to the hardwood. The decision came down to Northwestern and Saint Joseph’s. Between the national platform of the Big Ten and the chance to bolster a young, inexperienced roster, the Wildcats’ offer was too good to refuse.

Spencer has since developed into one of Northwestern’s best players and one of the most captivating stories in college sports.

“Right now, I’m a basketball player,” Spencer told US Lacrosse Magazine in January. “That doesn’t mean I’ve shut the door on lacrosse completely. It just means that right now, I’m really focused on what we have here.” 

Spencer didn’t step into just any basketball environment. He leapt headfirst into the best conference in the country. He didn’t just warm the bench as some playful PR pawn for commentators to mention during timeouts. He played starter’s minutes, averaged double figures in scoring and ranked among Big Ten leaders in assists.

“He’s a pleasant surprise, for sure,” said A.J. Turner, a senior forward at Northwestern. “When I found out that he committed, the first thing I did was go to YouTube and look up his highlights. I read a couple articles that said he was like the LeBron James of lacrosse. The IQ, the passing — that translates to basketball.”

The idea of seriously pursuing college basketball had been in the back of Spencer’s mind since his junior year at Loyola. He entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal in December 2018. But the seeds were planted much earlier than that. He grew up a self-declared Duke fan in Maryland country and led Boys’ Latin to a conference basketball title as an all-star his senior year. He spent his college lacrosse offseasons on the court, playing in competitive summer leagues in Annapolis.








Basketball was Spencer’s first love even as a 5-foot-4, 125-pound high school freshman. His body eventually caught up to his athletic ability. Now he’s 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.

Lacrosse fans took no offense. Those who gushed when Spencer climbed the ladder to score a leaping backhand goal against Rutgers last February responded with equal zeal when Spencer stole an inbound pass and took it the distance for a fast-break dunk against Michigan State.

“It validates the type of athletes that we have in the sport,” said ESPN lacrosse analyst Paul Carcaterra, who likened Spencer’s success in basketball to what former Penn State lacrosse player Chris Hogan has accomplished as a wide receiver in the NFL. “It’s an opportunity for the sport to be really proud of one of our own.”

Spencer could soon have company in the category of elite lacrosse players making the leap to big-time college sports. Jared Bernhardt, the Maryland attackman who was a Tewaaraton finalist alongside Spencer last year, and JT Giles-Harris, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year at Duke, both entered the NCAA transfer portal over the summer. Each wants to use his fifth year of eligibility to play Division I football.

Pat Spencer, trendsetter?

“Pat’s made it look almost so easy,” said Chris Myers, Loyola’s director of lacrosse operations and Spencer’s former teammate. “It’s obviously not that easy.”

Spencer opened some eyes in his first pair of games for Northwestern — he scored 10 points in the Wildcats’ opener, and then 11 in his next game. But it was his fifth appearance — against Bradley in the Fort Myers Tip-Off Tournament on Nov. 25 — when he burst onto the scene. 

Spencer finished with a game-high 23 points, hitting all three of his 3-point attempts, shooting 9-for-12 from the floor and dishing out eight assists. 

“He just looked like he fit in Division I basketball,” said Brandon Gaudin, a college basketball analyst who called that game for the Big Ten Network. “And I can’t think of very many athletes that could step from one sport to another at the highest level on the collegiate side and just step right in and fit in, like he’d been there all along.”




PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER


This experience hasn’t come without its bumps. As Northwestern battled injuries, Spencer has had to learn how to play like a true point guard and lead a team on which he’s both the oldest player and one of its newest. After four years playing attack for the Greyhounds, he’s back to balancing both sides of the ball and playing defense on every possession. 

And though the playing surfaces may be different, there aren’t too many differences between Spencer the basketball player and Spencer the lacrosse player.

“His role on the lacrosse field was perfect for the transition that he’s made in basketball,” Carcaterra said. “He was playing from behind the cage in lacrosse, seeing everyone and setting up plays, and now he’s in front of the basket. He sees everything develop.”

Spencer still carries the same competitiveness and confidence that he brought to the lacrosse field.

Kelly Amonte Hiller was part of the group that watched Spencer’s workout on his first visit to campus. A seven-time champion as Northwestern’s women’s lacrosse coach, she knew how to spot a good player. And she saw one in Spencer.

“It was the presence he brought,” Amonte Hiller said. “That confidence transcends [sports], and when you get that level of confidence, you bring it into other areas of your life. That’s why Northwestern really wanted to buy into what he was about.”

The rest of the lacrosse world has been following along every step of the way. Loyola coach Charley Toomey said he’s watched more college basketball this season than any year before. Spencer texts nearly every day with Loyola assistant Matt Dwan.

Spencer’s parents, Donna and Bruce, have been splitting time traveling around the country to catch Pat’s games and those of his younger brother, Cam, a freshman guard on Loyola’s basketball team.

A group of Loyola lacrosse players and coaches made the trip down I-95 from Baltimore to College Park to see Spencer and the Wildcats play at Maryland on Feb. 18. Spencer assured them he would be watching when the Greyhounds opened their 2020 season with a February gauntlet that included games against Virginia, Johns Hopkins, Rutgers and Towson.

He’s still known as the lacrosse star wherever he goes. His highlights still make the rounds on the lacrosse internet — only now, instead of fast-break goals, they’re full of fast-break dunks — and he’s happy to still represent the sport that made him a star.

“To grow [lacrosse] in any way that I can help, it’s obviously something I’m proud and willing to do,” Spencer said. “Hopefully, it’ll bring some more exposure to the game.”

What comes next for Spencer is another question. He insists that he hasn’t yet thought long term. 

Those around Spencer believe that his future will involve basketball. Anecdotes from his former coaches emphasize the genuine love he has for the game.

Spencer often ate lunch in the stands of Loyola’s Reitz Arena, watching the basketball team practice. He spent his free time in college on the sidelines at Boys’ Latin as a volunteer basketball coach. As his Northwestern teammates tuned in to the NFL playoffs in January, Spencer watched NBA highlights on his phone. 

“I’d love to selfishly have that opportunity to coach him one more time,” said Toomey, who is also an assistant for Team USA ahead of the 2022 world championship, “but I think basketball is his absolute dream at the moment.”

Pursuing a professional career in the U.S. or in Europe? Coaching college basketball? Making a return to lacrosse? Nothing’s off the table right now. 

“I do want to pursue basketball, but I want to see which opportunities present themselves and what I’m able to capitalize on the most,” Spencer said. “I love both sports. I really love basketball, and it’s something I can see myself doing for the rest of my life. But I think it’d be great to have options.”

There’s no telling exactly what’s next for Pat Spencer. But one thing is for sure: He’ll continue to be driven by his passion for the game — no matter which sport it is.

“When people were talking to me about him making the jump to Division I basketball and there were a lot of naysayers, I told everyone I talked to: Never tell Pat Spencer there’s something he can’t do,” said Cliff Rees, his former basketball coach at Boys’ Latin. “And I would never bet against him doing something he wants to do.”